Handicapping Insights - November 5
by Dick Powell
The Breeders’ Cup is over and there was a major handicapping lesson to be learned.
We have the most objective data available to those of us that bet on the races. Points of call, sectional timing, past performances and all sorts of speed figures are available to the American horseplayer.
Yet, $150 million in wagering on 13 Breeders’ Cup races are an embarrassment around the world that has much higher per capita wagering. For instance, what we bet on the 13 Breeders’ Cup races doesn’t even come close to what Australia, a country of 23 million people, bet on this week’s Melbourne Cup.
With far less information, most of the world bets far more money on horse racing. So the question becomes “How do they do it?”
Instead of reducing horses to a numerical rating, the rest of the world has a narrative on a horse. Who the horse raced against and how those horses they fared against others before and after creates a form line to analyze. Throw in major factors like the turf condition, which can vary widely, and the horse is not a number but a subjective contestant in a race against others with their own narratives.
I have all the respect in the world for those horseplayers that totally rely on speed figures, or more importantly, performance ratings for their wagering. But the key to the most successful of them is that they totally rely on them and do not let outside factors into their equations. They analyze the horses and the pattern of their ratings indicate a horse that is improving or going off form.
It would be very hard for me to be that type of player since I am aware of too many outside factors and they would contaminate the pure analysis of the performance ratings.
So what does all this mean? First, a trip down Memory Lane.
In 2007, DYLAN THOMAS (Danehill) was being pointed for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fr-G1) at Longchamps Racecourse in Paris. Winner of the Irish Derby (Ire-G1) at three, he came back at four to win the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth S. (Eng-G1) and Prix Ganay (Fr-G1) so the Arc would be the logical conclusion to the season, if not his career.
The week before the Arc saw heavy rain hit Paris and trainer Aidan O’Brien said that Dylan Thomas would not enter the Arc if the ground at Longchamps came up soft. The days leading up to the Arc turned out to be warm and sunny, the ground dried up, and Dylan Thomas won the Arc, thanks to some horrendous officiating by the stewards who should have taken him down. Still, he got the ground he thrived on and won the most prestigious race of his career.
Four weeks later, he was entered in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Monmouth Park. It started raining that week and never stopped. Even during the race it was still pouring and the turf course was a bog. The riders describe a course like Monmouth’s that day as “bottomless” as their mounts feet hit the ground and keep on going down.
We knew from the narrative on Dylan Thomas that he disliked soft turf and this was soft turf times 10. But because it was the last race of his career, he stayed in the race. Because he was coming off a victory in the Arc, he was sent off as the 9-10 favorite. And, the result was extremely predictable as he struggled home fifth in the field of eight, beaten over eight lengths.
Now, fast forward to this year’s Arc. Trainer John Gosden said that Epsom Derby (Eng-G1) winner GOLDEN HORN (Cape Cross) would only run in the Arc if the ground firmed up and would not run if there was too much give to it. Sure enough, the weather cooperated and on firm ground, Golden Horn won the Arc and denied TREVE (Motivator), who needed softer ground, her third straight Arc win.
Immediately after the race, Golden Horn’s owner said they would go to the Breeders’ Cup for the Turf. Notice, trainer John Gosden did not say it knowing full well that this year’s Breeders’ Cup would be run at Keeneland, with its unpredictable weather, and not sunny Santa Anita.
But the owner called the shots and here was Golden Horn at Keeneland prepping for the Turf. When it poured during the week, I can’t imagine the vibe Gosden was giving off. The course dried up a bit by Saturday but it was still listed as “good” and probably was a little bit softer than that.
To me, the Turf came down to two horses: Golden Horn and FOUND (Galileo). Time after time, our turf horses cannot compete with their European counterparts and I saw nothing different this year from our side even with a bunch of solid, hard-knocking older turf runners.
With Golden Horn being vulnerable, but not impossible, I felt that Found had a huge shot. She was getting in light at 119 pounds as a three-year-old filly and she came into the Turf in strong form.
In this year’s Arc de Triomphe, she was stopped cold turning for home and raced in traffic throughout the stretch run. With the firmer ground, the leader, Golden Horn, was not backing up, and she was not able to make up enough ground when beaten five lengths. Still, the Arc showed she can compete against males at the highest levels of racing.
Two weeks later, Aidan O’Brien sent her to Ascot for British Champions Day and against males once again, she rallied from dead last in a 13-runner field and got up for second going 1 1/4 miles. Now in the Turf, she was back at 1 1/2 miles, getting weight and racing over a turf course that her chief rival would not like. Give me Ryan Moore in the saddle and dismiss her as the fourth choice at 64-10 odds and I am all in.
The point is that at face value, the objective data pointed toward another win for Golden Horn. And if the Turf were run on Santa Anita’s pool table, he probably would have won by five lengths. With little objective data about his ability to handle less than firm turf, you needed to know the narrative about Golden Horn, just like Dylan Thomas in 2007, and his weakness.